Everything You Need to Know About Business Etiquette

Everything You Need to Know About Business Etiquette

Business etiquette is what lies underneath the deal. Mainstream business thought focuses primarily on the deal itself—creating the best product at the best price, and putting together an attractive presentation with plenty of charts and graphs. But you’ll quickly discover that your slick PowerPoint will be completely meaningless if you’re not following good protocol.

You have no doubt spent years studying the details of how to create a great presentation. In business school, they taught you all about business plans, cost accounting, customer service (and how to outsource it), and project management. Think you’re ready to go out there and make a deal? Think again. All those things are useful, but if you’re going to Japan and haven’t been told how low you should bow when you first meet, or never to pour your own sake, you’re not going to get far. There are things you were never taught in business school that will become very important in your success. How should you look? How firm should your handshake be, or if you are in a foreign country, should you shake hands at all?

The guy who chewed gum and lost a deal

With everything else being equal—after all, the other guy knows how to make a presentation too—what do you think your potential client is going to remember? The fact that your pie charts were a little better rendered than your competitors’ won’t carry much weight. What they will remember though, is something a lot less tangible. How did you present yourself? Did you make them feel uncomfortable in any way? You may have had the best presentation, but do you want to be remembered as the guy with the weak handshake who chewed gum with his mouth open during the presentation? Those things count for a lot more than we realize.

Some business etiquette rules are universal

Business etiquette varies a great deal from country to country, and even from region to region. What works in one country may be a grave insult in another. But these differences notwithstanding, there are still some rules of etiquette that are universal, regardless of where you may find yourself.

The biggest considerations of business etiquette are: dress, greetings, and respect. Within those three categories there are hundreds of rules to know, but they all come down to those three broad categories.


Appropriate business clothes are always the rule. What is appropriate however, is seldom the same in any two situations, and so this will take a little studying of the particular environment. You’ll almost never go wrong with a conservative business suit, but there are exceptions. Are you pitching a product to a bunch of bikers who own a motorcycle shop? That business suit may put them off, and a more casual appearance may be in order.


Some of the most successful sales people greet their potential customers with a firm and aggressive handshake, look them straight in the eye, call them by their first name and say “How’s the wife and kids”. And sometimes, it works. The most important thing is to understand which type of greeting is appropriate for each situation.


Etiquette doesn’t have to involve a lot of complex rules—for the most part, it is common sense. What you do and how you act should indicate that you respect your counterpart. That may manifest in any number of different actions that can be studied and learned, but when in doubt, just think—“does this action show respect?” And act accordingly.

Be Prepared: South Korea Business Etiquette

Be Prepared: South Korea Business Etiquette

South Korea is an increasingly modern country with a trillion dollar economy and leads the world in DSL connections per person. But despite its modernness, Western business leaders will find that knowledge of South Korea’s traditions and customs will go a long way.

Show a sincere interest in the culture, and take time to learn at least a few polite social words, such as gam-sa-ham-ni-da for thank you and an-yong-ha-say-yo for hello.

Making the connection

The “cold call” will get you nowhere in South Korea; a country where personal connections still are meaningful. If you have no personal connections, a local liaison that does will help you succeed. Alumni networking, particularly, among graduates of prestigious Korean universities, are a valuable source of business connections. If you have no acquaintances there – how about searching those “six degrees of separation” connections: Friends of friends that can serve as your introduction to your South Korean counterpart. Think you don’t have that? Check Facebook and see who you are playing the social games there with. You might be surprised at how far your connections reach.

Follow the rituals…religiously

The etiquette needed for a successful business meeting in Korea is rigidly ritualistic. Korean culture places a high value on certainty, structure, conformity and teamwork as well as respect for authority. Business meetings are formal and tightly choreographed with many rituals which, if ignored, will break your chances of making the deal. Here are a few:

  • It is important to acknowledge both status and age. Greet the people with the highest status first, followed by the oldest person in the room.
  • When dealing with Westerners, Korean businessmen will give a light handshake sometimes followed by a bow. When shaking hands the person with the highest rank offers his hand first.
  • You will know immediately if your Korean client prefers bowing. In this case the junior person is expected to bow first.
  • Offer your business card with both hands and a slight bow. Give them time to read the card. If offered a card, receive it with your right hand and take time to read it. To do otherwise would be considered disrespectful.

Do you know how to sing?

Business and social get-togethers are often mixed at the Korean version of a Karaoke bar – known locally as “no-rae-bang”. The videos usually include the English words so be prepared to sing at least one song at your host’s urging.

Common sense etiquette when working with any foreign company includes sending ahead translated copies of any material you are going to present to your prospective client / partners. This shows that you respect their culture and are willing to go the extra mile to work with them. Have your business card translated as well.

Finally, when leaving, be sure to bow. Waving in Korea means “Come here…”!